Spread Technician: The Artist-Philosopher-Engineer at Play

Having passed the “century” mark in self-designed tarot spread creation and presently working on my second hundred, I’ve been thinking (when am I not?) of what it takes to develop a truly informative and compelling layout that avoids being tiresomely trite. The most common formula in use today is to take five card positions, which seems to be the  minimum number to escape the overdone three-card “action/reaction/resolution” model (Hegel’s thesis/antithesis/synthesis), give a slightly novel spin to the position meanings, arrange them in an atypical sequence (left-to-right is so passé), and call it original. When I took up the practice back in 2011 after using the Celtic Cross exclusively since 1972, I quickly became bored with the limited interpretive palette offered by this approach and began experimenting in earnest with notions like two-deck (and sometimes three or four-deck) spreads, dual-path (and even multi-path)  layouts, hidden cards, alternative outcomes, very large (and also very small with a unique twist) spread designs, and an arsenal of practical, psychological and spiritual arrows in my analytical quiver.

None of this apparent madness happened by accident. I began life with a strong desire to be an artist and even went to art school in New York City in the ’60s, but eventually realized that, without becoming a wage slave in the advertising machine, it’s as hard to make a steady living doing that as it is to become a successful musician. So I acquired a business management degree and went to work in a field that took advantage of my equally powerful urge to write. Along that road I bootstrapped my way into ad-hoc mechanical engineering and picked up a smattering of electrical engineering as well, while honing my technical and legal writing chops in a professional setting. All the while I continued exploring esoteric subjects and working with astrology and tarot, and when I retired in 2010 I began blending the organizational and analytical skills I had picked up with the more imaginative demands of tarot spread design. Recently I realized just how well the two apparently incompatible sides of my life experience complement one another and often converge in a unique way.

In a nutshell, it seems to me (at least in my own rather uncommon case) that the following attributes are essential to effective spread design:

  • an engineer’s (or at least a savvy technician’s) sensibilities to get the structure and flow just right for the spread’s purpose;
  • a graphic designer’s eye for creating layouts that are both pleasingly arranged and accessible;
  • a storyteller’s ear for perfectly-phrased position meanings;
  • a philosopher’s omnivorous appetite for syncretism; and
  • a mystic’s finely-tuned discrimination to keep the focus from becoming too rigidly prescriptive or, conversely, wandering too far into “woo-woo” limbo

One might suppose that this thorough-going mindset will produce a rather mechanical and even sterile reading environment, but the one quality that rises above all the others in keeping things lively is to possess a true “storyteller’s heart.” A pitch-perfect grasp of what makes for compelling narrative is vital to success; everything else is just stage-craft. But you can see for yourself by searching on Tarot Spreads (or one of the topic-specific sub-groups) from the “Select Category” drop-down menu in the sidebar. Better pack a lunch (and your sense of humor, I like quirky titles); there are a lot of them and the philosophical learning curve occasionally gets steep.

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